“Let’s get you out of here,” I said hurriedly.
Alice’s eyes widened in recognition, mouth falling open to say something, but she could only manage a ragged cough. Jeremy grabbed a fire blanket pack from off his harness and wrapped it around her, swiftly picking her up in his arms. If I wasn’t so preoccupied with getting us the fuck out of here, I would have paused for a moment to reflect on the twinge of jealousy that spiked right through my chest at the sight of Alice in his arms. Now wasn’t the time, though. Outside, the rest of the team was starting to trickle water down on the building, taming the fire enough for us to escape.
“I’ll clear the way,” I shouted to him. “Stay close.”
We exited the building as quickly as we could, minding our steps. Several places in the floor had begun to soften as a result of the fire, making for an extra treacherous escape route. Jeremy stuck right on my tail, relying on me to find us a safe passage out. I didn’t even need to keep checking over my shoulder to make sure he was still there. I knew on instinct that he was right behind me, Alice held tight against him.
We made it out of the building just in time to see the roof above Alice’s apartment collapse in on itself, sparks flying everywhere to rival the twinkling of the uncaring stars. The ambulances have luckily arrived, first responders assisting those suffering burns or those who inhaled too much smoke. We took Alice to be checked over, setting her down on a waiting stretcher the paramedics brought.
My heart twisted in my chest when I finally got a good look at her. Her fair skin was covered in black ash. Her forearms were swollen and red, probably from exposure to the heat. Alice was taking in deep, clear breaths, though –always a good sign in my line of work.
“Th-thank you,” she said, voice a bit hoarse.
“Don’t talk,” I replied. “Save your strength.”
Jeremy tapped me on the back. “We’ve still got a bit of work to do. Can you wait for us here?”
Alice managed a weak nod. I really didn’t want to leave her by herself, but Jeremy was right. I knew things were bad when he actually sounded logical for a change. The fire was under control, but not entirely put out. The rest of our team was going to need our support to take care of the rest of the flames. I worked hard and fast, eager to check on Alice as soon as I could. I wasn’t sure what it was about her that had me feeling so… protective. Either way, it served as great motivation to work as efficiently as possible.
It took another hour or so to make sure the fire was out for good. Chief Wilson was going to want our report as soon as we got back, and the police had arrived to conduct their own investigation to determine the cause of the fire. If I was being perfectly honest, something about this whole situation didn’t seem like a run-of-the-mill apartment fire. Sometimes people left food on the stove or in the oven too long, and that was what caused the outbreak. Sometimes faulty wiring was the cause, though this building looked too new to have those sorts of issues. But those kinds of incidents didn’t normally spread as quickly as they did and with as much ferocity. It was like some sort of accelerant was used.
“Hey,” I said to Jeremy under my breath. “Was it just me, or did–”
“Did I smell gasoline?” he finished for me. “Yeah, I think I did. It was faint, but definitely there. I already let the cops know.”
By the time we got back to Alice, she was looking a lot better. Well, as much as could be expected after going through such a traumatic experience. She even managed a small, weak smile at the both of us as we approached.
“How are you feeling?” asked Jeremy.
Her words were faint, barely audible, “I can’t stop shaking.”
“That’s the adrenaline. That’ll pass soon, I promise.”
“I overhead some of the paramedics talking. Is everything really gone?”
I swallowed at the dry lump that had lodged itself in my throat. I didn’t like how small and tired she sounded. I always cared about the people that we rescued, I just didn’t show it. Not like Jeremy, what with all his smiles and kind, reassuring words. Still, the fact that Alice was the one involved –even though she was a complete stranger– had my guts tying themselves in bulky knots.
“Do you have somewhere you can stay?” I asked her. Blunt, to the point. It was my specialty.
To my dismay, she shook her head. “I moved here about a month ago. My nearest family member’s a five-hour train ride away.”